CHADDS FORD, Pa. — Riddle me this: Is the Whitney Biennial a real Whitney Biennial if it goes without protest? In 1960, back when the exhibition was held annually, Edward Hopper urged Andrew Wyeth to sign his letter protesting the near exclusion of realist painting. The artist declined, distancing himself from the New York art world’s socio-political arguments, content with what was in front of him, like Giorgio Morandi with his bottles. Yet, from the late ’60s on, Wyeth would be labeled a reactionary — which is rather like taking issue with a rock for not taking issue with you — and conservative, overlooking John F. Kennedy honoring him in 1963 with a Medal of Freedom for depicting “verities and delights of everyday life” in the “great humanist tradition.” To this day his East Coast critics spend a surprising amount of energy dismissing his relevance.
Jerry Saltz’s 2009 obituary on Wyeth begins by claiming “almost no one in the art world ever thought of or cared much about [him]” thereby slighting Alfred Barr, Elaine de Kooning, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, for starters. More, Robert Hughes did a 180 switch, lauding the painter after his death. “[I]n over three decades in the art world, I have never heard one artist, art student, teacher, critic, collector, or curator mention his name,” Saltz goes on. One wonders whether he missed his wife Roberta Smith’s 1998 New York Times review “New Light on Wyeth’s Outer and Inner Landscapes” on Wyeth’s Whitney Museum show. Was he also completely unaware of photographer Collier Schorr’s obsession with Wyeth’s Helga pictures? “Wyeth was considered so conservative,” Saltz continues, “that even the Metropolitan Museum of Art declined an offer to exhibit his work.” No. The first one-person exhibition the Met ever gave to a living American artist was “Two World’s of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons” curated by director Thomas Hoving in 1976, previewed by Grace Glueck and reviewed by Hilton Kramer in The New York Times, where more argument ensued.